Questioning “presidentialistic” politics - Blueboard by Hansley A. Juliano

January 26, 2016

Last Friday, January 22, was the 29th anniversary of the Mendiola Massacre. What was supposed to be a protest for genuine agrarian reform ended with the murder of thirteen farmers by riot police in January 22, 1987—just a month shy of the first anniversary of the first EDSA Revolution. One of the first of many later blots to the heroic myth of the first EDSA Revolution, we rarely deign to remember it, save the long-grieving relatives of the victims and the long-suffering rural sector.
 
We forget the lessons of such grim episodes in our political history at our peril. If the mind-boggling lead-up to the Presidential polls this year means anything, it highlights how much of the institutional problems of our nation-state we have failed to address for the past 30 years.

 
The limited institutional reforms of Corazon Aquino’s presidency, as well as the private capital-friendly policies of Fidel Ramos, were merely fine-tuned under Benigno Aquino III — the results being worsening traffic, non-inclusive growth, the failure to rehabilitate from Typhoon Yolanda and the Mamasapano clash. It is unsurprising that it now led to political debates becoming overtly personal and polarized. It reflects in our current set of presidentiables.
 
Whenever we discuss developments in our country’s political history, we almost always chalk it up to the capabilities of our President. Like most countries, we consider our heads of state synonymous with our government, over and above legislative and judicial branches.
 
The Philippines, compared to most presidential states, has a very strong presidential office — to the detriment of its judiciary and legislative. Compounding this is the weakening of Congress’s constitutionally-mandated budgetary powers (Sec. 24, Art. VI) by surviving presidential decrees from the Marcos administration (Presidential Decree Nos. 1177, 1967 and 81) according fiscal powers to the President. These were upheld by the1987 Revised Administrative Code (Executive Order No. 292). With de facto “power of the purse” and massive institutional influence concentrated in the Executive, the mandate on “balance of powers” is honored more in the breach than in observation.
 
It is understandable if we believe faulty state-society relations under  “Noynoy” Aquino was due to his shortcomings as a leader and the interests he represented. To zero-in just on him, however, is to miss out on the very reason why the 2016 presidential race is becoming toxic for the country’s democratic life. We have bloated executive power beyond reasonable boundaries.
 
This problem is as old as the debates surrounding the origins of the Philippine nation-state itself. To this day, historians still disagree on whether the leadership of the Revolution was “better off” under the “grass-roots” Katipunan or the “results-oriented” revolutionary government Emilio Aguinaldo led. This debate is quite colored by our contemporary ideas of political leadership.
 

The historian Glenn Anthony May tried to weigh in on this discussion differently in a 2007 essay studying the leadership structures of Andres Bonifacio’s Katipunan and Aguinaldo’s government(s) (in the journal Philippine Studies, Vol. 55, No. 4). May suggests that instead of simplifying their conflict as a tragedy of personal ambition, we should look at how it “was but one brief skirmish in the perennial struggle between the charismatic and the bureaucratic.”With nationalistic history-writing having oversimplified and valorised the charismatic and patriotic leader, we chose to hold unrealistic assumptions of political leadership. Thus, we condemn ourselves to the cyclical search of a President-messiah, falling to the cynical pandering to such expectations by ambitious politicians.
 
This is not the first time executive-obsessed politics endangered Philippine sovereignty. January 23, 1899 saw the establishment of the Malolos Republic by Aguinaldo and his ilustrado-dominated Congress — which quickly lost stability due to Aguinaldo’s unwavering trust in America and the absence of any institution to countercheck his policy.  Seventy-one years later, on January 30, 1970, the First Quarter Storm erupted due to rampant graft, corruption and economic mismanagement brought about by Marcos’s micro-managing presidency. Coincidentally, these milestones occurred in the same month as the Mendiola Massacre.
 
I think this year’s intensely-unpredictable campaign season is due to our growing sense of the contradictions of leader-centric politics. The statistical tie between the rankings of Vice-President Jejomar Binay, former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares, and Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte vis-à-vis each other point to something we don’t want to admit. We are beginning to second-guess ourselves, seeking more effective governance versus the Liberal Party’s contradictory “Daang Matuwid”, yet are cornered by less-ideal options.
 
Why should we continue giving undue powers to the Office of the President more than it already has? Might it not be time we actually go back to the statutes of the Constitution we Filipino citizens have promulgated? How about we begin restoring checks and balances in government? Maybe voting for House Representatives and Senators who actually carry our priorities and able to translate them into policy — those not dependent from the largesse of Malacañang? Maybe electing local officials attuned to national politics yet ensure our localities’ autonomy? Maybe we should buckle down and clean our local backyards first, so that we can propose national reforms with working local examples? If anything, calls for Congress to override the Presidential veto against pension hikes at the Social Security System (SSS) should be considered an opportunity for contesting questionable presidential calls.
 
It is about time we stop treating our presidents as kings—both present and prospective ones. There is a reason we call our nation “democratic” and “republican.”
 
Hansley A. Juliano serves as a part-time lecturer to the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He is also engaged in research and advocacy for various sectoral issues (such as labor rights and agrarian reform).